Does the Phrase “All of” Bother You?

I posed the following question to my colleague, Paul Stregevsky.

Consider the following sentence:

“Deliveries have shown big potential, making up almost all of Whole Foods’s growth.”

As an editor and teacher, I would strike “of.”

What do you think? Would you let it be?

I would let it be, and so would Bryan Garner. From Garner’s Modern English Usage:

In two circumstances, all of is the better choice.

1. When a pronoun follows “all of them.”

2. When a possessive noun follows. For example: “Beyond all of Jones’ ego-stroking maneuvers and incessant need for attention, this is what he is talking about.”

Of course, because this is Bryan Garner, he points out two exceptions to #1: When the pronoun is serving as an adjective — either possessive (“all my belongings”) or demonstrative (“all that jazz”).

​Do You Know the Difference Between “Bold” and “Italics”?

​Technically, bold and italics communicate the same point: Emphasis. But they’re not interchangeable. In fact, in nearly every kind of professional writing, bold and italics are used in distinctly different ways.

Italics are used to emphasize a certain word or phrase within your body text. For example: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

To be sure, bold is sometimes used for the same purpose, but only on the names of important people or companies. For example, this is how gossip columns or ​trade publications work.

By far, the more common use of bold is on headings.

Are you confused? Do you disagree? I welcome your questions and comments.

Gerunds Take the Possessive

Which sentence is correct?

1. Our withdrawal depends on Turkey pledging not to attack the Kurds.

2. Our withdrawal depends on Turkey’s pledging not to attack the Kurds.

#2 is correct, for a simple reason: Because gerunds (in this case, Turkey) take the possessive.

Similarly, which of these sentences is correct?

1. I appreciate you taking time to talk with me.

2. I appreciate your taking time to talk with me.

Again, #2 is correct, for a simple reason: Because gerunds (in this case, taking) take the possessive.

What Does the "Fold" Suffix Actually Mean?

The Wall Street Journal explains something I could never quite figure out:

Twofold, fourfold, ninefold. But use numerals and a hyphen for numbers 10 and over: 12-fold.

Remember that -fold means times. So an increase from 1 to 2 is a twofold increase (1 times 2), or a 100% increase. An increase from $5 to $25 is a fivefold increase (we view -fold increase as an idiom that includes the base amount), but a 400% increase.

The use of -fold means your percentage amount and your fold amount will be off by one degree.

When in doubt, try to avoid the -fold construction entirely.

Sarah Koenig Can Write!

“Koenig writes like real people talk. Instead of telling us about ‘the defendant,’ she describes ‘the cookie baker’ facing a felony conviction for offering a marijuana cookie to an unknowing acquaintance. The man who assaulted a woman at a bar becomes the ‘ass slapper.’”

Lessons for Writers From Serial’s Year in a Courthouse

What if We Interpreted the Jargon of Washington, D.C., Literally?

Take it away, Famous D.C.:

Amelia was arrested for running up the flagpole of Cannon.

Amelia dropped $200 at the supply store in Longworth trying to buy more bandwidth.

Amelia was arrested again for flashing tourists as she opened the kimono.

Amelia ordered a lasso on Amazon when her LD asked her to loop in more offices.

Amelia racked up $600 in speeding tickets when the press secretary suggested she run the traps on a press release.

Amelia took up yoga after all the reaching out she was doing.

Amelia embarrassed herself when she showed up to a jam sesh with a PB&J.

Amelia got so dizzy from circling back on her boss’ email that she passed out in the Rayburn Foyer.

Amelia got stuck on the Bay Bridge making a trip to Ocean City to try and help her chief boil the ocean.

Amelia set fire in the intern housing by putting that resolut1on on the back burner (of the stove).

Amelia was arrested yet again for chasing the ducks by the reflecting pool in an effort to get them in a row.

Amelia was lectured by the cops for calling 911 when the LC was not “actually, literally, dying” in that Friday 9:30 AM meeting.

Amelia took up meditation after her Scheduler asked her repeatedly to take something to Hart.

Amelia started doing 50 squats a day when she saw an email about leg staffers being on the path to success.

Amelia got caught by her boss throwing money on the ground because she heard they were dropping a bill today.

Amelia scoured Yelp! for veterinarians who could help make the lame duck better.

Amelia rode the elevator for hours trying to guess which floor was “the floor.”

Amelia re-read the entire Harry Potter series to try and earn Cloak Room status.

Amelia ate nothing but Spaghetti O’s in an effort to learn the alphabet-soup language everyone spoke of.

Amelia went to confession because she felt so guilty about her boss’ plan to kill the bill in committee.

Amelia ordered hearing aids for her boss because she heard he wasn’t attending any hearings.

Amelia bought her boss a Kindle after hearing him yell at the press secretary for not getting him booked on TV.

When Being Inexact Is Perfectly Correct

Two years ago, the New York Times reported that on his 1996 income-tax returns, Donald Trump declared a $916 million loss.

When discussing this fact, most of us round “$916 million” up to “$1 billion.”

That’s both appropriate and advisable. In short, “one billion” is more memorable than “916 million.” Indeed, “a billion bucks” is not only easier to recall; it’s also easier to articulate.

Note: You could also round down, to $900 million. But most people, as a matter of tradition, tend to round up.

Postscript: One of my students points out an important nuance: While the headline should cite “$1B,” the article itself should use the actual number.

metonym. synonym

Earlier this month, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor, Neil Serven, replied as follows.

Q: Can you help me understand the difference between these two words?

A: A metonym is a figure of speech in which something is referred to by another thing with which it is closely associated. A common example is the use of City Hall to refer to the government of a city (as in “you can’t fight City Hall”), when literally it refers to the building that houses a city’s government offices.

Typically, synonym refers to a word that can stand in for another word and retain the same meaning, such as lukewarm for tepid, or avarice for greed, or java for coffee.

In extended use, however, synonym is something used when metonym is meant, as when one says, “Peoria has become a synonym for Middle America.”

A Better Way to Write a Long List

Two years ago, the following sentence appeared in the New York Times (the context is irrelevant to my point):

“Among those he identified were Mr. Christie’s chief counsel, his chief of staff and his press secretary, as well as a confidant he had picked as Port Authority chairman, his campaign manager and his political strategist.”

Most people wouldn’t give this sentence a second thought. And that’s as it should be. But to wordsmiths like me, what’s interesting is the way this sentence isn’t written:

“Among those he identified were Mr. Christie’s chief counsel, his chief of staff, his press secretary, a confidant he had picked as Port Authority chairman, his campaign manager and his political strategist.”

The second example is how most of us would write a list: By citing everything in a single clause.

Yet the “as well as” transition in the first example doesn’t feel forced at all. To the contrary, it flows naturally.

I suspect the reasoning for this unorthodox construction is that rattling off six things in a row inclines the reader’s eyes to glaze over, whereas citing three things, followed by three things, is easier to digest.

Coincidentally, around the same time as the article in the Times, an article in Time pulled off the same trick. Here’s the sentence:

“There will be a Madam President, after so many female governors and Senators and Prime Ministers, so many female entrepreneurs and CEOs, so many female judges and chancellors.”

Here, I suspect the reason for the odd listing is lyrical: The pairing off by two sounds so much better than one big mouthful: “Female governors, Senators, Prime Ministers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, judges and chancellors.”

How to Break Up a Long List Within a Single Sentence

Here are two sentences from my bio (which I’m in the process of rewriting):

1. He’s spoken before clients such as Nascar, Axa, Visa, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Defense, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

2. His work has appeared in top-tier publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, TimeFast Company, Forbes, and Mashable.

The problem? These lists are seven items long, which is a mouthful when read aloud (or even just read on a screen; our eyes glaze over them — even mine).

Ideally, I’d turn these eye sores into bullet points. After all, this is what I teach my students.

And yet, I fear that bullets in the middle of a short bio would be awkward.

Is there another solution? Why, yes, there is! To break up each list into two smaller sets; to create clusters. Here’s what I came up with:

1. He’s spoken before clients such as Nascar, Visa, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

2. His work has appeared in top-tier publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, along with business-oriented outlets like Fast Company, Forbes, and Mashable.

As you can see, I used the phrases “as well as” and “along with” to create demarcations and thus pauses. As a result, the revised sentences are far more readable than the original ones.

Why I Discourage My Students From Using the Phrase, “I Feel”

Here’s an email I just sent to my students.

My objection derives from what I perceive among students as an unnecessary lack of confidence. When someone begins an answer by saying, “I just feel that,” what I hear is, “I’m hedging because I’m afraid I’m wrong.”

(The same is true for expressions such as “I’m not sure but,” or “This may not be right, but.”)

To be sure, doubt is sometimes fully appropriate. And constant certitude can be conceited. Yet more often than not, in my view, such trepidation is unwarranted.

As I said in our first class, I believe that you each are smarter than you give yourself credit for. So when I hear hesitant, noncommittal language, it pains me.

When you speak or write, I’d encourage you to have the courage of your convictions.

Postscript (10/6/2018):

I just came across these wise words from career coach Zeta Yarwood:

“Confident people aren’t confident because they know everything. Their confidence comes from knowing that, even though they don’t know everything, they know enough.”

Postscript (11/3/2018):

Compare these sentences:

1. We feel we’re qualified for this project because of our work with Washington’s top trade associations.

2. We’re confident we’re qualified for this project because of our work with Washington’s top trade associations.

3. We’re qualified for this project because of our work with Washington’s top trade associations.

4. Our work with Washington’s top trade associations qualifies us for this project.

Each one is stronger than the previous one, no?

Does Punctuation Matter? Just Ask These Women

A professor wrote on the blackboard, “Woman without her man is nothing.” The students were then instructed to punctuate the sentence.

The male students wrote, “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

The female students wrote, “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.”

Practicing What I Preach

Here’s a sentence I can’t believe I wrote this morning:

“The mindset of privileging the institution over the individual exemplifies an insidious form of insecurity.”

In rereading this, I immediately recognized how stilted it was, and so rewrote it as follows:

“When you value the institution over the individual, you betray your insecurity.”

The lesson? Write the way you speak, and embrace personal pronouns.

When Elegant Variation Makes Sense

A client recently asked me to edit a document about sales figures. One of the first things that stood out was the repeated use of the words “increase” and “decrease.”

What a letdown, especially with a subject like numbers, where the writing can quickly get repetitive. One of the great virtues of English is that it’s brimming with synonyms.

To be sure, you don’t want to succumb to what Fowler called “elegant variation” — unnecessarily swapping out a perfectly good word (like “said”) for another (“uttered”) solely to avoid repetition. But you do want to take advantage of the different meanings between, say, “decrease” and “plunge,” between “increase” and “skyrocket.”

Here’s a quick list of alternatives:


shoot up

Only in Fantasy Football Will You Find These Names

1. Hugh G. Rection

2. Mike Hunt

3. Buster Hymen

4. Justin Casey Feltersnatch

5. Suq Maddiq

6. Anita Cock

7. Craven Morehead

8. Heywood Jablowme

9. Amanda Hugginkiss

Great Writers ​Replace ​C​lichés With ​Puns

Here’s an email I just sent to my business-writing students:

​Great writers subtly violate their reader’s expectations in order to surprise, to delight, or to emphasize a point.

For example, instead of relying on a cliché, great writers create a pun. (As wordsmith par excellence William Safire memorably put it, “Avoid clichés like the plague; seek viable alternatives.”)

You may remember the example I used in class: Instead of saying, “Go big, or go home,” try saying something like, “Go big, then go home.”

This is punning 1.0. But if you want to get fancy, here’s how to create a 2.0 pun:

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” It means, If you’re preparing to do battle, then suit up appropriately.

To avoid this cliché, most writers might change “knife” or “gun” to something even more dramatic — say, “pillow” or “grenade.” That’s good, but not great. Great writers would go one step further.

For example, here’s a sentence I just read by Eric Levitz (note: the subject of the sentence, Michael Avenatti, is a pugilist who would explode the Queensbury Rules practiced by today’s congressional Democrats):

“Avenatti is bringing a knife to a policy fight.”

The pun is subtle yet sophisticated. It changes the original in a way you don’t anticipate, but which you appreciate. And that’s the stuff of which great writing is made.

When Is It Ok to Change the Punctuation or Spelling in a Company’s Name?

My colleague Paul and I had a fun debate today. Here’s a recap:

Organizations like Debevoise & Plimpton, Ben & Jerry’s, and Barnes & Noble all spell their names with an ampersand (“&”). (For official confirmation, I checked their SEC filings.)

I always change the “&” to “and”; Paul declines the edit. Respect the company’s choice, he says.

Am I distorting these companies’ choices, their legal names, in some cases their trademarks? Well, yes!

But I do it for the sake of standardization. For the same reason, back when “Yahoo” was spelled “Yahoo!” and “Recode,” “Re/code,” I removed the “!” and “/.”

And yet, as much as it pains me, I wouldn’t correct “Chick-fil-A” to “Chick Fillet,” or “Dunkin’ Donuts” to “Dunkin’ Doughnuts.” Isn’t this a glaring inconsistency?

No. To me, “&” and “!” are mere punctuation marks, which editors rightly change to fit their house style. Ditto for “centre” to “center” or “behaviour” to “behavior.” By contrast, changing the actual spelling of a name is a bridge too far.

For example, tweaking “Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services” to “Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services” is a matter of style. But tweaking “Publix” to “Public” is a matter of substance.

(For a fascinating backgrounder on this subject, check out this article in Slate by Matthew J.X. Malady.)

Postscript (9/15/2018):

Somehow, I overlooked another punctuation mark: The missing comma. For example, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is a title of a book by Jimmy Carter. “Bed Bath & Beyond” is the name of a retailer.

I cringe when writing these appellations because they’re so obviously missing a comma.

The question: Should we correct them (to Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid and “Bed, Bath & Beyond”)?

Postscript (9/18/2018):

Sadly — or perhaps unsurprisingly — Paul, John, and I are still discussing this. Thanks to Paul for getting to the heart of the matter:

“There’s little agreement on which attributes qualify as intrinsic:

“1. Is the use of an ampersand in place of “and” an intrinsic part of an organization’s name?

“2. Is an apostrophe’s misuse (“Lands’ End”), absence (“Joes Diner”), or spurious use (imagine a “Linens’ and Things”) an intrinsic part of a company’s name?

“3. Is a nonstandard use of uppercase or lowercase an intrinsic part of a company’s name?

All good questions.

Is It “The DoD,” or Just “DoD”?

A colleague who works at the FDA would edit that sentence to read, “A colleague who works at FDA.”

I disagree. If you spell out “FDA,” which phrase sounds better?

1. “Works at the Food and Drug Administration.”

2. “Works at Food and Drug Administration.”

It’s not even close. #2 sounds awkward, whereas #1 sounds natural.

And yet, a different colleague tells me this issue isn’t that simple. According to Paul, using or not using the definite article (“the”) isn’t a hard-and-fast rule you can apply across the board. His advice: Use “the” before an initialism (e.g., the DoD, the NSA), but drop the “the” before an acronym (e.g., NASA, NIST).

On its face, this guideline seems reasonable. Yet the more I ponder it, the more I remain unsatisfied. In my view, the distinction isn’t between abbreviations and initialisms; it’s a matter of plain English. Just spell-out the sentence, as we did earlier with the FDA, and the answer will emerge clearly.

That’s because the absence of “the” (“works at Food and Drug Administration”) is distracting. It makes the listener pause because it makes the speaker sound like he’s still learning English.

If only the debate ended here.

But Paul then turned to another expert, John, who pointed to a different trick: Use “the” when you pronounce the letters (e.g., the FBI, pronounced “eff bee igh”; or the FDA, pronounced “eff dee ay”), but drop the “the” when you pronounce the abbreviation (e.g., NASA, pronounced “na suh”; NIST).

Got that? Letters vs. abbreviations.

John concluded by referencing a quintessential quirk of the English language:

“There may be some exceptions to this rule. For example, no one would say, ‘He went to the MIT.’”

Don’t you just love language?

How to Use a Colon the Right Way

When you use a colon to introduce a list, make sure to write a complete thought first. Your lead-in should be a complete thought.


Next year, we must increase crease our marketing in: the West, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southern regions.

Next year, we must increase our marketing in three regions: the West, the Pacific Northwest, and the South.

Notice how the complete sentence does a much better job of helping the reader anticipate how the expression will end.

—Richard Lauchman, Punctuation at Work: Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style

insist. insists

I’m one of those people who insists on correctness.

I’m one of those people who insist on correctness.

Why You Should Use a Hyphen: “The Millisecond of Ambiguity”

Wise counsel from Bill Walsh, author of Yes, I Could Care Less: How to be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk:

To me, hyphens are to writing what turn signals are to driving: helpful, unobtrusive and far too often considered optional. Many in the odd-editor community disagree. Taking to heart the rationale that hyphens are used to avoid ambiguity, they are forever searching for reasons to declare certain modifiers or sorts of modifiers unambiguous and thus exempt from hyphenation.

So you have to ask yourself: What do you do when confronted with something like Doctor helps car crash victims?

Do you hyphenate all instances for consistency in this story but approach other stories case by case? Or do you just recognize that it’s a good idea to hyphenate compound modifiers and avoid all that torture?

More alarming to me was Time’s cover story about “The Only Child Myth.” What the editors meant, of course, was the only-child myth. I fear that someone on the “creative” side thought a hyphen would be all ugly and cluttery.

I’m the kind of person who uses a turn signal before changing lanes even when nobody’s watching. Just as you can’t predict when a car is going to materialize out of nowhere, you can’t necessarily predict how your copy is going to be read.

The millisecond of ambiguity is the rationale behind my policy of strictly hyphenating compound modifiers. If I simply wrote white truffle purveyors, you would briefly wonder whether the purveyors were white, and you’d have to backtrack and mentally insert the hyphen that applies the whiteness to the truffles.

forego. forgo

Before you instinctively “correct” forego to forgo, you should know that these are in fact two different words, with two different meanings.

Forego means “to come before.”

Forgo means “to do without.”

6 Signs the Guy Editing Your Work Is an Amateur


1. Believes the many fallacious “rules” she learned from her third-grade teacher.

2. Hasn’t read a book on writing since Strunk and White in college.

3. Has no clue about true best practices backed up by research into how people read.

4. Insists that the passive voice is “always” wrong, not just wrong in a particular context.

5. Hypercorrects by “correcting” CMS’s to CMS’, him to himself, supersedes to supercedes, and forgoing to foregoing.

6. Thinks that contractions are unprofessional.

—Adapted from an email from Paul Stregevsky.

A Writing Tip So Obvious I’m Embarrassed I Never Thought of It Until Now

While it’s written for journalists, the same principle applies to writing in general.

From the Wall Street Journal’s latest language column:

If your lede starts off with an official, an agency, an organization, or a company following some sort of process, take another look. Yes, sometimes the process being followed is the news, but usually it’s not.

A special committee of the board of directors of XYZ Corp. recommended Monday that Chief Executive John Schmidlapp resign over sexual-misconduct allegations that have dogged him since January.

XYZ Corp. Chief Executive John Schmidlapp should resign over sexual-misconduct allegations that have dogged him since January, a special committee of the company’s board of directors said Monday.

Is It Ok to Use the Serial Comma Inconsistently?

I teach my students that whether they favor or oppose the serial comma, it’s important that they be consistent above all else.

Yet check out these two sentences from a recent op-ed in the ​​New York Times​:

“Conservatives and people of the right value these things as well but have several additional moral touchstones — loyalty, respect and sanctity. They value in-group solidarity, deference to authority, and the protection of purity in mind and body.”

Is there any justifiable excuse for such inconsistency — especially in the most coveted real estate in journalism?

When the Acting Is As Brilliant As the Writing

Does the Phrase, “To Be Honest,” Rub You the Wrong Way?

Maybe it’s me, but this phrase grates on me. After all, taken literally, it implies that the speaker, up to that point, has been less than honest.

To be sure, I doubt the speaker actually means that. But here’s the thing: I have to interpret words based on their actual meaning. I’m not a mind reader.

Accordingly, instead of “honest,” why not use a more precise word? Here are a few:

✔ blunt
✔ candid
✔ forthright
✔ frank

What’s the difference? While I like to assume that the person I’m speaking with is being honest with me, I can understand if he’s not being frank. The difference is subtle, but aren’t most things a difference of degree?

What do you think? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Or do you too find this platitude to be slightly insulting?

How Does a Copyeditor Differ From an Editor?

Note: These are rough definitions.

A copyeditor (which I’m using as a synonym of proofreader) focuses mainly on the following:

✔ typos
✔ grammar
✔ punctuation
✔ consistency

What does “consistency” mean? Let’s say the writer prefers the Oxford comma. It’s then the editor’s job to make sure this comma is always used. Ditto for how many spaces to use between sentences (please, only one); spelling out numbers; which dash to use (en or em, never a hyphen); and the like.

By contrast, an editor focuses on everything. This includes:

✔ formatting
✔ factual mistakes
✔ cogency
✔ clarity
✔ tone
✔ flow

Again, these are general guidelines that I present to clients. Other editors likely use their own distinctions.

John Hermann Sure Can Write

Check out the verbs on display in these two sentences (even if the first sentence is too long):

“It rose in the circuitous and unexpected manner of a viral video, rather than one that had been calculated to game YouTube’s algorithms by seizing on interest in breaking news or tragedy — it had no catchy headline, no recognizable personality, no vast theorizing. And yet it blasted through YouTube’s safeguards and somehow kept going, exposing the platform as vulnerable to sudden influence from inside and outside its walls.”

✔ rise
✔ calculate
✔ game
✔ seize
✔ blast

And don’t forget about these examples of parallel structure:

✔ no catchy headline, no recognizable personality, no vast theorizing

✔ from inside and outside its walls

When to Use a Comma? It’s More Complicated Than You Think

The program evaluates your computer system, and then copies the essential files to the target location.

The program evaluates your computer system, and then it copies the essential files to the target location.

The difference? In a word: “It.”

As my colleague Paul Stregevsky explains, If we use a comma, we create a miscue that leads readers to expect an entirely new clause (“and it then copies the file”) instead of merely a new phrase (“and then copies the file”).

Here’s another example (from a bullet point on a resume):

Maintained knowledge of store merchandise, and answered customer questions.

Maintained knowledge of store merchandise and answered customer questions.

I maintained knowledge of store merchandise, and I answered customer questions.

One more (note: these are both correct)

She resolved all manner of complaints, and she devised time-out procedures.

She resolved all manner of complaints and devised time-out procedures.

Here are the guidelines:

1. Clauses get commas. Phrases don’t.

2. To warrant a comma, a clause needs both a subject and a verb. (A “subject” is different from an “object.”)

How to Write With Verbs

Check these displays of conjugative vigor, from today’s New York Times:

1. “Those mailboxes also materialized for Brady, who commanded an offense that capitalizes on nameless, faceless positions — running backs who catch like receivers, tight ends who run like running backs and receivers who do both. Brady completed passes long and short and in between, to Chris Hogan and Rob Gronkowski and Rex Burkhead, gashing the Eagles for 276 yards by halftime and 404 through three quarters. In all, New England shredded Philadelphia for eight plays of at least 20 yards.”

Note, in particular, these verbs:

✔ command

✔ capitalize

✔ gash

✔ shred

And then, a few paragraphs later, we get another verbfest:

2. “Of Brady, he said Sunday night, ‘I respect him, a great player, probably one of the greatest ever, but hey, he had not played the Eagles yet.’ He had not faced the team that choreographed elaborate touchdown celebrations and railed against social injustice and donned goofy dog masks to embrace their underdog status while mocking it. Fulfilling Lurie’s demand for a coach with emotional intelligence, Pederson fomented an inclusive locker-room culture that empowered players to flaunt their personalities.”

Again, note these power verbs:

✔ choreograph

✔ rail

✔ don

✔ foment

✔ empower

✔ flaunt

Companies Whose Names Have Been Genericized

✔ Band-Aid
✔ Dumpster
✔ Kleenex
✔ Google
✔ Jell-O
✔ Legos
✔ Photoshop
✔ Q-Tip
✔ Thermos
✔ Uber
✔ Velcro
✔ Xerox

What’s Wrong With This Sentence?

“Much has and will continue to be said about...”

Broken down, this sentence technically means

1. Much has said about...


2. Much will continue to be said about ...

While the reader understands the point, the grammar is wrong.

If I were editing this, I’d rewrite it as follows:

“Much has been said, and much will continue to be said, about...”

Can a Good Writer Write Anything?

I’m republishing this commentary by Paul Stregevsky, which he wrote in response to an article that argued most tech writers can only do tech writing.

Yes, Carl: We writers are one-trick ponies.

That’s why Shakespeare wrote such second-rate sonnets.

Why humorist Gene Weingarten didn’t deserve his Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.

Why lawyer Scott Turow failed at crafting legal thrillers.

Why nonfiction writers Twain, Orwell, and E.B. White gave us such forgettable fiction as Tom Sawyer, 1984, and Charlotte’s Web.

Why scientists Stephen Gould, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson were such failed popularizers.

Why Oscar Hammerstein III and Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote such memorable plays (Oklahoma, My Fair Lady), wrote such forgettable lyrics.

The Power of Denominalization

Upon completion of a PWP course, you’ll know to write with vigor.

After completing a PWP course, you’ll know to write with vigor.

The 4 Kinds of Subheadings in Writing

You Can Change an Entire Debate by Simply Using a Different Word

In the Old Days
tax avoidance
tax efficiency
revenue enhancements
tax cuts
tax relief
estate tax
death tax
The Affordable Care Act
government takeover
public school
government school
nuclear codes
nuclear bombs
financial stability package
Democratic Party
Democrat Party
greenhouse gases
rising temperatures
extreme weather
renewable energy
clean energy
dried plums
dolphin fish
mahi mahi
Patagonian toothfish
Chilean sea bass
Department of War
Department of Defense
enhanced interrogation
correctional center
safety check
used car
certified, pre-owned or factory-renewed
pet owner
pet parent
low-income or disadvantaged
curvy or thick
corporate raider
activist investor
junk bonds
high-yield bonds
Job Titles
executive assistant
Job Titles
custodial engineer
Job Titles
hospital corpsman
The Workplace
The Workplace
fire people
increase efficiencies

For more examples — and how you can create them for your own line of work — check out my media-training workshop.

Is “sales” singular or plural?

Which of these sentences is correct?

1. What does sales have to do with copywriting?

2. What do sales have to do with copywriting?

Because Merriam-Webster doesn’t specify whether “sales” is singular or plural, I turned to my colleague Paul Stregevsky for guidance.

Paul says that #2 (where “sales” is treated as plural) is correct. That’s because “sales” is the semantic subject.

Semantic who?

Apparently, there’s a distinction between “semantics” and “syntactics.” (I'd never heard of this either.)

Happily, Paul explains by way of examples:

Syntactic Subjects

* Sales is a dwindling occupation.

Semantic Subjects

* Sales are climbing.

* What does sales have to do with copywriting?

Omit Needless Words

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

—William Strunk Jr., The Elements of Style

The Semantics of Dieting

People no longer want to talk about ‘‘dieting’’ and ‘‘weight loss.’’ They want to become ‘‘healthy’’ so they can be ‘‘fit.’’ They want to ‘‘eat clean’’ so they can be ‘‘strong.’’

Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age

Is There a Difference Between “Hot Not to Bomb” and “How to Not Bomb”?

Which phrase is better, I asked my colleague Paul Stregevsky? He replied as follows:

Grammatically, of course, both are fine. They mean the same thing. It’s just a matter of where to place the emphasis.

Nine out of 10 professional writers would probably prefer “how not to bomb”; it seems to call more attention to “not.”

Democratic. Democrat

Calling someone a “Democrat Senator” is insulting; it means he’s overly liberal.

Calling someone a “Democratic Senator” is descriptive; it means he’s a member of the Democratic Party.

Keep the Verb Close to the Subject

Which sentence sounds better?

1. “The module will pass, from Google to Facebook, personal data about health, income, and eligibility.”

2. “The module will take personal data from Google about health, income, and eligibility and pass it to Facebook.”

If you said #1, you’re correct. But can you identify why?

I’ll leave it to Richard Lauchman, author of Plain Style: Techniques for Simple, Concise, Emphatic Business Writing, to explain:

“Reveal the verb early. The reader hungers for the verb. She holds her breath until the verb arrives, because until it arrives she has no sense of what the overall expression is about. Try not to separate the verb from the subject; put those words as close together as you can.”


“People are piecemealing a living together.”

Abbreviations Have Nothing to Do With Informality

Wise counsel from Richard Lauchman, author of Punctuation at Work: Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style:

Abbreviate for Clarity, Not As a Rule

Many people say (because someone once said it to them) that abbreviations of any sort make your writing informal. Such a remark doesn’t get us anywhere; it merely opens the door to endless philosophical debate. And there is never a victor in a conflict about “formality” because definitions vary wildly.

What we want is writing that fits the occasion and the readership — and whether it’s “formal” or “informal” by any individual’s definition should not be a concern. Our primary concern should be clarity; the next should be economy.

Because documents vary in their conventions of style, commandments such as “It’s always best to avoid abbreviations” and “It’s always best to abbreviate” are equally oversimplified. If I were you, I wouldn’t get caught up in considerations of formality when I’m trying to decide whether to abbreviate. I encourage you to behave practically. Abbreviate when doing so would not distract, when the abbreviated form is what the reader is used to, and when the abbreviation would save the reader time.

For Example

When the abbreviation is what we’re used to, the spelled-out version can be puzzling. Many people who have never heard of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have a good sense of what OSHA does. Isn’t it true that IBM is more familiar to you than International Business Machines Corporation? Isn't it true that NASA makes sense to you more quickly than National Aeronautics and Space Administration? Formality is not the concern here. Clarity is.

We conventionally use a.m. and p.m., for example, and if someone actually wrote six ante meridiem or four post meridiem, we would have to ponder the meaning — and then we would wonder what was wrong with him.

How to Use a Colon to Introduce a List

Wise counsel from Richard Lauchman, author of Punctuation at Work: Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style:

When you use a colon to introduce a list, make sure to write a complete thought first. In other words, don’t write something like this:

“Next year we must increase crease our marketing in: the West, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southern regions.”

Instead, your lead-in should be a complete thought, like this:

“Next year, we must increase our marketing in three regions: the West, the Pacific Northwest, and the South.”

Notice how the complete sentence does a much better job of helping the reader anticipate how the expression will end?

A few more examples:

•   Today we will discuss two topics: executive compensation and shareholder rights.

•   She visited four countries: Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy.

•   We have only three options: reduce the bid, increase the scope of work, or abandon the proposal.

When Should You Use a Hyphen?

Wise counsel from Richard Lauchman, author of Punctuation at Work: Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style:

Say you come across the following sentence:

“The study should yield more conclusive results.”

Does this sentence mean that additional conclusive results are required, or that results that are more conclusive are required?

In the latter instance, meaning requires more-conclusive results.

As in cases of this sort, it’s better to use a hyphen than to omit one just because the rules say it shouldn't be there. Here are three guidelines to consider when hyphenating:

1. Break the Rule When Doing So Helps Your Reader

Nearly all authorities say you shouldn’t hyphenate compound adjectives when the first word is comparative or superlatives: “most favored nation” or “less developed countries.”

Break this rule when your meaning requires it. In the sentence below, taken from the New York Times, notice how lower-ranking is handled:

“The only other figure from the Bush White House to have been convicted of a serious crime is Donald McGonegal, a lower-ranking official who has been sentenced to 18 months in connection with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.”

Even though readers would probably get this meaning, the hyphen enables them to get it a little more quickly.

2. Know Your Audience

Phrases like spread spectrum analysis and frequency hopping system require no hyphen at FCC because they have become terms of art among communications engineers. If, however, you’re writing to a nonexpert audience, then you’re encouraged to hyphenate spread-spectrum and frequency-hopping.

3. Value Clarity Above All Else

It’s better to use a hyphen when the rules say you shouldn’t than to omit one when the reader needs it. Your readers don’t care about the rules of hyphenation. They care about clarity. I encourage you to hyphenate whenever doing so helps prevent ambiguity or facilitates understanding.

The compound adjectives below all begin with superlatives (which by rule aren’t supposed to require a hyphen), but the reader benefits when you hyphenate because he sees your intention a little more quickly. That is what we want.

•   the best-case scenario
•   the best-kept secret
•   the least-recognized fact
•   the worst-conceived plan
•   the least-annoying error
•   the weirdest-rule award


jackpot (v): to allow an issue to fester, and then dump it on someone all at once

“You jackpotted me!”